Winning Words

Do our words matter when we talk about climate change?
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

In a world where a big communications budget can pair two otherwise comically oxymoronic words in our minds—think “clean” and “coal”—it would be ill-advised to say that words don’t matter. It would be even worse to assert that choosing the most effective words to convey smart ideas is somehow dishonest.

But that’s basically what Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental communications, told the New York Times this week about EcoAmerica’s prematurely leaked research-based talking points intended for climate policy advocates such as government officials and environmental leaders. As he put it, social change makers shouldn’t stoop to the level of marketing or advertising tactics: “You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell that. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”

You can call it manipulation, but if we left strategic wordsmithing like this only to lobbyists for coal and oil interests, we’d be doing the public a major disservice. Anyway, Brulle’s choice of a loaded word like “manipulation” in the first place—when I imagine he’s referring to might also be called “persuasion” or “consensus-building” (or just communicating)—itself reveals the difference just one word can make. Words matter. And, for most of us working toward climate solutions, words are some of the most important tools we’ve got. Just as a brain surgeon doesn’t go for a rusty scalpel, we like to choose our words wisely—sometimes even paying money to figure out which ones are best for the job. EcoAmerica has been doing just that, conducting extensive polling and focus group research for the last several years to find ways to frame environmental issues and so build public support for climate change legislation.

It’s about making climate messages more clear, less wonky, and most effective at conveying the core values underlying the policies.

I’ll wait for EcoAmerica’s official report. What has been leaked so far is incomplete, but from what I’ve seen, their findings reinforce strategies that Sightline has been promoting for some time: focus on solutions rather than gloom and doom; avoid technical or number-heavy talk about carbon-dioxide but rather focus on the need to stop overloading the atmosphere; and highlight the enormous opportunities of moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.

One finding by EcoAmerica answers a question I’m asked frequently by climate advocates in the Northwest: Which is better “global warming” or “climate change?” I never had a definitive answer. Most research showed the terms were interchangeable and worked differently depending on the audience. EcoAmerica found that the term global warming is far more polarizing. According to the Times report, “The term [global warming] turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes.”

So, if Professor Brulle is listening—or any other strategic communication cynics out there—here’s just another example of how a simple word or phrase either turns people away or invites them into the conversation. When good policy relies on public support, maybe it’s okay to pay attention not just to what we say, but to how we say it.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Read more in ,


  1. Todd says:

    Surely a professor of environmental communications is not so unaware as to think how we say things doesn’t matter, right? I’ve no prior knowledge of Brulle, but it seems a bit unfair that you’ve relied on the single quote from the Times to knock Brulle around a bit.For what it’s worth, a slightly fuller explanation of what Brulle might have meant can be found (quickly) in an article at his faculty website:—“Spinning our way to sustainability?” See in particular pages 85 and 86.It seems that Brule has a vision of deeper engagement of citizens than treating them as isolated consumers of PR. He argues that environmental groups should put more emphasis on face-to-face, nitty-gritty organizing than wordsmithing for news outlets and legislative subcommittees.He also raises a vexing cultural question, one that I suppose brands him as what your post calls a ” strategic communications cynic”: If we don’t like something when our opponents do it, why do we think it is acceptable when we do the same? Pro-coal people get in a room and test words to make coal more palatable to a public whose attention is mainly elsewhere; anti-coal people test words to make coal less palatable to the same people. What’s the difference? It’s all just a competition for split-second affections based on impressions, not any real learning or actual knowledge. I think what Brulle is trying to say is: well, if THAT’s all we’re doing, then that’s a big waste of our culture’s time—one the looks an awful lot like a shallow and zero-sum game. He’s hoping for a different kind of citizenry and a different kind of conversation.He seems to be hoping people will get together more, maybe even outside, and pay less attention to professionals on either side—perhaps even to the experts at Sightline. It seems less that Brulle wants to call “smart” words “dishonest” and more that he wants more people to gather and ask, “Hey, who are these people telling me this idea is ‘smart’? And what makes this idea so smart and that one so dumb?”He may be wrong to think that people will engage that much. Maybe that’s the hard truth—that it’s much more difficult, perhaps not even possible, to get a too-busy nation to engage any deeper than what we can glean from competing “yay clean coal” and “clean coal is a myth” advertisements. Is this, then, what your post was meant to say—that this really is a hard truth, and perhaps strategic communications is (sadly?) the best we can do? Or, alternatively and more simply, did you mean to say that the other side does strategic communication so we must do it too, like Pepsi advertising against Coke just to maintain market share?Maybe you could invite Brulle to an exchange on your blog. It would be more fair, of course, and it might air some of these issues more fully.

  2. Callie Jordan says:

    I appreciated your post, Todd, thanks. I don’t think it’s either/or though.You could say that everyone has an ulterior motive and it’s up to us to dig behind the words to learn what that bias might be. Then we could decide whose motives we most closely identify with. However, digging does take time.Of course we would hope, ultimately, that citizens would engage with each other and develop their own critical thinking to thoroughly understand the policy issues they—as voters, consumers, and constituents—are electing and/or buying and/or supporting. Even the best-intentioned policy wonk, however, can’t possibly be as knowledgeable about all aspects of his/her life as a citizen as about any one specialized topic. And, yes, there is a proportion of the general population that isn’t the least bit wonky.I’d say we need both sound bites that capture the essence of our message (through well-chosen words) and also the in-depth background that can stand scrutiny from those who are so inclined (and who have the time). (Yay, Sightline!) And therein may lie the difference between “spin” and “strategic communication”—which can stand up to investigation.

  3. Anna Fahey says:

    Thanks to you both for weighing in on this. I keep going back to an experience I had observing a focus group of moderate voters in Bend, Oregon. One woman was embarrassed to admit that with kids and work and all the things she had to do, she had maybe five minutes in a day to pay attention to current events, evaluate what she heard and form an opinion. Then she said, “and I’m a political science major!” and laughed. Yesterday I read that only 24 percent of Americans know what cap and trade is. We have five minutes to engage people in a conversation—or spark their interest in something that might affect their lives or their kids lives. We do need to keep our market share—and part of that is strategic communications that resemble what the “other side” is doing. But, more importantly, we need to think about ways to invite that Bend woman into the conversation and maybe get her to spend a bit more time—talking with others, going to meetings, getting out of her routine.I agree Brulle’s heart is in the right place—and he may be right that the only way to true understanding is having a different kind of conversation. But I think he does smart policy a disservice by reinforcing many progressives’ anxiety that ANY strategic thinking about what words they use—AT ALL—is some kind of sinister “spin.” The words are the conversation. We need to use the ones that work.

  4. Michelle says:

    Hey all, I’m glad you’re discussing this because some good points are being made about the best ways to frame important messages. Todd, I took your excellent advice and looked into Brulle’s faculty website to try and get a better idea about where he’s coming from on this issue. From what I could gather from his Scholarship and Research, it seems like he and Sightline are basically on the same “aikido politics” page, when he asks:”Is environmental mobilization stimulated or contained by the anti-environmental countermovement? Is there a spiral of movement/countermovement interaction in which similar discursive frames, organization and tactics (including protest) are adopted and diffused across these contending actors?”Callie, you and Alan previously discussed aikido politics here, in comments.The first time I ever heard about using aikido politics within The Mass Media was when Alan discussed it in a talk he gave at Oregon State University in 2001. And, because I have a Journalism degree, I found the idea both brilliant and fascinating: Use the Media’s proven techniques for capturing the public’s attention, and aim that attention at Environmental Issues! Anna, what great insight gathered from that Bend woman. And, sometimes we even have LESS than five minutes! :-)

  5. Michelle says:

    PS: (just to be clear…)Todd, your comment was initially for Anna since she’s the author of the Post. But, I thought it was great advice for anyone interested in making clear and unbiased points, journalists or not! :-)

  6. Michelle says:

    PPS:(just to be even clearer…)In case any newcomers to Sightline’s weblog might be wondering, I am a huge fan of Sightline, and I am in no way picking on Anna or anyone else here. In fact, I think she and all the journalists at Sightline are STELLAR writers worthy of holding our attention and of receiving constructive feedback from we the readers.Sightline rocks! :-)

  7. Anna Fahey says:

    Thanks, Michelle!If we were journalists and not “just” bloggers we might have the bandwidth to invite folks like Professor Brulle to give their input. Maybe I’ll send him the post so he can respond though—because I value his opinion and in many ways I agree with his position. In my perfect world people would engage in a deeper conversation. I think that’s happening among the “converted”—but what I’m talking about gets beyond preaching to the choir and using smart strategies to invite people in to the conversation in the first place. If they aren’t there and don’t feel interested, they can’t have that deeper kind of engagement. And yes, unfortunately, we’re dealing with a public that is isolated and dispersed across a segmented media landscape—and real people who have less than five minutes a day to engage. I wasn’t trying to pick on Brulle so much as a general aversion to “PR tactics”—or smart communications—as a way to start that conversation. If you’re not using smart, effective communications what’s the alternative?Not very aikido of me though!

  8. Michelle says:

    The alternative is probably getting thrown to the floor, JUDO style!In an interview that Alan had with a journalist years ago (maybe even a decade ago), Alan said something to the effect of, “conServation and conVersation go together.”It’s getting that conversation started, and keeping that conversation productively going, that, to me, is the “Art of Aikido Politics.”Blogs are one source of conversing about conservation. :-)

  9. Michal says:

    I just spent a few of my proverbial “five minutes a day” scanning your post and the comments. Very interesting points, all.The one thing I’d add is the interesting finding from “The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact.” One of the study’s finding underpins the point that you need to be careful what words you use to pursuade; if the words are “loaded”, they will either be very effective or can blow up in your face. In short (and very simplified) if you show someone with “individualistic” tendencies evidence that GHG emissions are causing climate change, and suggest that more regulation of GHG emitting industries is the solution – that person is likely not only to reject the solution but is likely to dispute the validity of the evidence. However, show another person with the same individualistic tendencies the same evidence and suggest that encouraging free market solutions through deregulation is the answer, that person is likely not only agree with you, but accept that climate change is a big problem that requires immediate action. I admit that I have not read the entire study, but I’ve heard one of the authors, Donald Braman, interviewed about it and found the abstract – which you can find by searching the name of the study.

  10. Michelle says:

    Interesting, Michal. Thanks for the input!Here’s a link to an article regarding this study (although, some of the hyperlinks appear to be out of date).Quickly reading through the article, (and distilling it down to a very simplified version during my proverbial “five minutes” :-) the study appears to confirm the Cardinal Rule of Effective Public Speaking:Know Thy Audience.The study also looks at how JOURNALISTS influence the public discourse regarding important facts, such as Global Warming, simply by the way they choose to frame “policy solutions.” From the article:”When policies are framed in ways that affirm rather than threaten citizens’ cultural beliefs, people are less likely to dismiss information that runs contrary to their prior beliefs,” notes the study.

  11. Anna Fahey says:

    From Professor Brulle:Dear Anna:I have followed the comments on your blog, and found them to be very interesting. FYI, I also was the subject ofa blog entry by George Lakoff on this same topic:George Lakoff has posted a comment on AlterNet today defending ecoAmerica have sent the editors of AlterNet the following reply (attached below). This might also be of interest to your readers. Feel free to post it.BestBob Brulle—To the editors:I was very interested to see Dr. Lakoff’s editorial today, in which he directly critiques my scholarship. I have written the following response. I hope that you will give this response a prominent position in your blog.Sincerely,Robert Brulle—I found Dr. Lakoff’s comments quite interesting and revealing of the limitations of cognitive science in the analysis of social change processes. From a sociological perspective, attitudes and beliefs are the outcome of socialization processes. There are not just two different cultural models available for us to use in our interpretation of the world. Lakoff reduces the complexity and plurality of competing and/or contradictory world views into a highly simplified and individualistic approach. In essence, this is a form of psychological reductionism. For a competing view of value socialization and moral development, I suggest a review of “Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action” by Jurgen Habermas.Additionally, I have never seen any engagement by Dr. Lakoff of the literature on the processes of social change. My work focuses on the role of citizens and social movement in fostering social change, which Dr. Lakoff reduces to a typification of only one part of my research. There is an extensive theoretical and empirical literature on the processes by which social change occurs, which is all ignored by Dr. Lakoff and the communications marketing approach. Again, for those interested in this approach, I suggest a read of chapters 2, 3, & 4 of my book: “Agency, Democracy, and Nature.” Additionally, many of my current writings are available online on my web site: a direct response to Dr. Lakoff, I highly suggest a review of the article “Spinning our Way to Sustainability?, which is available on my web site.I am not the only person to critique the social marketing approach to fostering social change. I highly suggest a review of the report “Weathercocks and Signposts” published by WWF—UK. is not that messaging is unimportant. However, the cognitive science approach neglects the social movements literature on the type of message that builds long term commitment to a movement for social change. We need to create and promulgate an effective message on global warming. I recently published an opinion article on this in Newsday.,0,4827742.storyMy concern over rhetorical form is that we are neglecting social movement building. The PR strategy seems to be the dominant mode of action for today’s environmental movement.Al Gore has his “Alliance for Climate Protection”, ecoAmerican has its spin campaign, etc. There is hardly anyone doing anything except virtual campaigns, or inside the beltway professional advocacy. The only exceptions I know of are Bill McKibben and, the Sierra Club, and numerous local environmental groups. None of the well-recognized national organizations, such as EDF, NRDC, or even Greenpeace, has an active citizen participation component. The only engagement citizens can have is to make a financial contribution.We aren’t going to get there with effective rhetoric alone. Rather than saying we are engaged in a multiyear messaging struggle—I see it as a multiyear political struggle, with messaging being one key part, but not the only, or even the most important part.To deal with global warming, we need a social movement with sufficient political power to compel effective action to reverse ecological degradation. Clever, top down marketing schemes will not be able to accomplish this task. Rather than following the simplistic, and fundamentally undemocratic strategy of elite developed, funded, and controlled media campaigns, we need to shift to building a genuine social movement that directly involves individuals. This is essential to build a movement that is capable of acting to protect the environment, not just for a short term campaign, but to foster a long term process of social change toward a just and ecologically sustainable social order. For those interested in the specifics of my argument on reform of the environmental movement, I suggest reviewing the article “Fixing the bungled U.S. Environmental Movement”, also available on my web site.Back in 1971, Dr. Barry Commoner noted the need to build a strong environmental movement based in citizen mobilization. It is no accident that it is during this time period that the environmental movement enjoyed its greatest success. He noted that “Anyone who proposes to cure the environmental crisis undertakes thereby to change the course of history…But this is a competence reserved to history itself, for sweeping social change can be designed only in the workshop of rational, informed, collective social action.” We need to follow his advice, and rebuild the environmental movement.Robert J. Brulle PhDProfessor of Sociology and Environmental ScienceDepartment of Culture and CommunicationsAffiliate Professor of Environmental HealthSchool of Public HealthDrexel UniversityPhiladelphia, PA 19104Web Site:

  12. Anna Fahey says:

    After the EcoAmerican leak, Seed Magazine hosted an interesting roundtable discussion about the merits and pitfalls of climate change messaging/framing. It’s a nice addition to the discussion that we’ve had here on the Daily Score:

  13. Anna Fahey says:

    One more addition: Grist’s Joseph Romm (chiming in with pollster Mark Mellman) assesses the EcoAmerica climate messaging recommendations. Basically, he pans the findings. I think he makes some really good points as does Mellman. Now it remains to be seen who in DC picks up which signals from pollsters and messaging gurus:

  14. Michelle says:

    Great article. Thanks, Anna! After skimming through it, though, couldn’t find any reference to either Joseph Romm or Mark Mellman in the link that you posted. Did I totally miss it during my “proverbial 5″?

  15. Michelle says:

    Oh, here, maybe this is the link? (Google to the rescue!)

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>